California Educators Influencing Voters?

It should come as no surprise that Democrats in Sacramento are diligently attempting to pry a handful of Republican legislators away from their party in order to attain the 2/3rds vote necessary to place a tax increase onto the ballot in a special election. But as this lobbying effort works its way through the halls of the state capitol, what role is appropriate for public education employees? Should they be teaching, or using the resources of the public education system to encourage parents to pressure their elected lawmakers in Sacramento?

There is a concerned parent in Camarillo, California, who has forwarded to us correspondence that documents an aggressive campaign on the part of teachers to influence parents. Here, for example, are excerpts from a Parent Teacher Association email newsletter sent on February 20th, 2011:

“TAX EXTENSION MEASURE

THIS IS A CALL TO ACTION!!

If you do one thing for your kids tomorrow, contact our state representatives and urge them to put the tax extension measure on the June Special Election Ballot.”

The newsletter goes on to document “The STATUS,” noting that “an additional $4 million funding cut will irreparably affect our children’s education,” “The SOLUTION,” suggesting “the first step is to persuade two-thirds of legislators in both the Senate and the Assembly to vote to place this measure on the ballot for a special election in June,” and “The ACTION,” instructing parents to “flood the offices of Senator Tony Strickland and Assemblyman Jeff Gorell with letters, emails, and phone calls today, and everyday, until March 11th…” and “Please join the California State School Board Association, the California State PTA, the PVSD School Board, and the Camarillo Council of PTA’s in asking our representatives to put this measure on the ballot.”

The parent who forwarded us this information also forwarded an impressive number of emails she sent to various school district officials questioning the legality of using taxpayer funded school resources to aggressively encourage parents to contact their legislators to advocate voting for the special election. But this sort of activity is very unlikely to be found to be illegal in a courtroom. The California Teachers Association, with an annual budget of hundreds of millions, can certainly afford the finest legal counsel available. They are not going to violate the letter of the law, or if they do, they will muster complex legal arguments to successfully defend their position, rather than desist. But what about the spirit of the law? Should people working for taxpayer funded institutions use their time and resources to influence voters? Since the size of their bureaucracies and the scale of their compensation is directly affected by whether or not tax revenues increase or decrease, can they possibly be impartial?

The responses our concerned parent received from the education bureaucrats who are orchestrating Camarillo’s role in what is a massive statewide campaign were not surprising. They were polite, accommodating, diligent and precise, and in carefully parsed phrases defended their actions and explained their legality. But our concerned parent contacted other parties, and their responses, or lack thereof, are illuminating.

Davis Guggenheim, producer of the movie “Waiting for Superman” which exposed the union agenda that has crippled our public schools and inspired our concerned parent to fight back, has not responded to her email. Michelle Rhee, the education reformer who the unions managed to expel from her job, did respond, and had this to say:

“Thank you for your support and involvement! I don’t have all the background here so take this with a grain of salt, but as I read this, Ms. Kim responded to your objection with an apology at the oversight, yes? I actually think that a PTA newsletter and any newsletter tackling education can’t be afraid to get into the conversation or talk about controversial issues impacting kids, though is best when both sides of the picture are presented.  What an interesting forum for discussion it could be if the persuasive piece for the tax increase could be shared alongside a piece from someone who disagrees. In this way people could be given the information they need to debate the issue from an informed perspective and make their own decisions. Thank you for reaching out on this, MR”

“…best when both sides of the picture are presented…”

“What an interesting forum for discussion it could be if the persuasive piece for the tax increase could be shared alongside a piece from someone who disagrees.”

Michelle Rhee has stated it plainly enough, although it is fair to wonder why Guggenheim and Rhee have not continued to be as outspoken as they once were regarding the inordinate power of public sector unions, the entities that were explicitly and vehemently criticized in Guggenheim’s film, and who did everything they could to destroy Rhee’s career. Why aren’t Guggenheim and Rhee leading the charge for reform by naming, loud and often, the entity who uses taxpayer’s money to fight their reforms?

There are a lot of ways to improve public education. Stop protecting underperforming teachers. Stop pretending teachers are underpaid, when they only work 180 days per year (most of us in the private sector work 230-250 days per year) – enact modest and appropriate cuts to their pay and benefits. Stop implementing layoffs that are based on seniority instead of merit. Stop mainstreaming disruptive and learning disabled pupils which is the reason large class sizes are not viable. Reduce the headcount of the massive administrative bureaucracy, wherein 40% of public education employees don’t work in a classroom.

Until reforms like this are on the table, taxpayers such as our concerned parent in Camarillo should rightly question whether or not tax increases are an appropriate means to “save the children.” And until reforms like this are presented in “Action Alerts” that emanate from public education bureaucracies on the taxpayer’s dime, alongside calls to pressure legislators to put tax increases on the ballot, one may certainly question whether or not they are an appropriate use of public resources.

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